Around 30 students gathered at a roundtable discussion on faith and environmental sustainability led by Director of the Science, Technology and International Affairs Program Mark Giordano and Vice President for Mission and Ministry Rev. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., in McShain Lounge on Monday in light of the papal visit.
The discussion, titled “Pope Francis’ Environmental Challenge,” centered on the pope’s encyclical on the environment from late May, which called for greater harmony between humans and nature. The encyclical, called “Praise Be to You,” also critiqued consumerism and unsustainable development while drawing attention to global warming and other environmental issues.
O’Brien began the discussion by explaining the historic significance of the encyclical, which has elicited a wide range of responses from world leaders, the scientific community and environmental activists due to the pope’s firm stance on climate change.
“While popes had talked about the environment for many decades, never has the environment been treated in such a systematic way, in such an authoritative way by popes,” O’Brien said.
According to O’Brien, the encyclical addresses practical problems caused by rapid technological development and economic growth, such as unequal access to clean water and healthy food. In the document, Pope Francis calls sustainability a means of redemption from the sin of environmental destruction.
“Anything that touches the human touches the church,” O’Brien said. “That human being is the child of God.”
After O’Brien offered his introductory remarks, he and Giordano shared their interpretations of the encyclical. O’Brien pointed out the interplay between the concepts of integral ecology, solidarity and the humanitarian interest of the Catholic Church.
Giordano discussed the social and scientific contributions that have been made since the encyclical was published. He said that the encyclical shifted the conversation on environmental protection from the wealthy, who often seem to value nature aesthetically or recreationally, to the most vulnerable parts of the population whose survival is directly threatened by environmental anomalies.
Giordano said that by providing a bridge between the scientific and religious communities, the encyclical promotes an interdisciplinary dialogue on social justice and the environment.
“I see the intersection [between religion and science] all the time,” Giordano said. “The connection between religion and science is what the pope said in the encyclical, and I think it brought together things in a way that haven’t been for a long time.” O’Brien said that it is important to hold discussions about environmental issues and sustainability on campus.
“[Georgetown has] been in a multiyear conversation about environmental sustainability and how we can be better protectors of the environment,” O’Brien said. “This event deepens the conversation that we have had as a campus … and our commitment to care for the earth.”
After the panel discussion, audience members talked about how they could contribute to environmental sustainability. Divided into groups under the categories of prayer, service and action, each table reflected on the encyclical’s message and came up with ideas for possible initiatives to promote sustainability.
Students who participated in the discussion suggested that the university community should begin contributing to sustainability with simple approaches, such as recycling.
Hadley Masiel (COL ’19), who attended the event and is involved in an initiative called Campus Kitchens that shares unused food from O’Donovan Hall with nearby neighborhoods, emphasized the need for greater awareness of the changes that individuals can make on the environment.
“If [people] are not understanding what they are doing every time they don’t recycle, there’s no incentive to change their ways,” Masiel said. “I think there should be more understanding of how much of an impact just a simple thing can make.”
Emma Berg (COL ’19), who attended the event, said that she hopes to see tangible outcomes through engaging in conversations about the community’s responsibility to protect the environment.
“People need to know how their choices [are] actually impacting the community and the environment,” Berg said.
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